Suicide is an issue the church cannot afford to ignore. In a LifeWay Research study nearly a third of churchgoers said they’d lost a close family member or acquaintance to suicide. Of those, over a third said their loved one attended a church at least once a month prior to his or her death.
Those wrestling with suicidal thoughts and those who love them are in the pews of our congregations. Churches have a great responsibility and opportunity to reach out in compassion to those who are struggling.
The LifeWay survey found that 84 percent of churchgoers believe churches should provide resources and support to individuals with mental illnesses and their families. And more than three quarters agree suicide is a problem that needs to be proactively addressed in their local community. However, two thirds of pastors said that their church could be better equipped to assist someone threatening to take his or her own life.
What can churches do to minister to those who may be considering suicide?
Know the truth.
Misconceptions about suicide and faith can deeply wound both those who are dealing with suicidal thoughts and their loved ones. Many mistakenly believe that depression is a sign of a lack of faith, and this notion can cause unnecessary guilt for those who are suffering, adding to their struggles. Advice to simply pray more or have greater trust in God comes across as an accusation, rather than sympathetic advice.
The truth is that devoted Christians are not immune to mental health challenges, and no measure of faith can provide a guaranteed shield against depression. Many well-known Christian leaders, from Charles Spurgeon to Ann Voskamp, have dealt with depression and thoughts of suicide. Even the Bible’s King David, who was called a man after God’s own heart, struggled with deep despair. Mental illnesses of any kind are not an indication that a person isn’t following God, and it doesn’t mean that He can’t use them for His glory.
Proclaim the truth.
Many churches remain silent on mental illness. Another survey conducted by Lifeway and Focus on the Family found that nearly half of pastors rarely or never speak on the subject to their churches in sermons or large group messages. Only a third broached this topic more than once a year.
In this silence, many misconceptions linger and stigma brews. Mental illness is more likely to be seen as shameful when it’s not discussed openly, and this shame often prevents those dealing with mental health challenges from sharing their struggles.
But, by speaking freely and frequently and openly declaring the truth about mental illness, churches can communicate to those living with these issues that they are valuable, that their suffering is real and that their challenges are not a measure of lack of faith. As it dispels falsehood, the body of Christ can show those who struggle that they are not alone and that they are accepted and loved by their fellow believers and by the Lord.
The same misconceptions that often prevent those dealing with mental health challenges from opening up about their struggles can prevent them from seeking treatment—especially within the Church. Although therapy and medications for mental illness are very common, stigma about them persists. This stigma is magnified by expectations that mental illness can be cured by faith and prayer alone.
Churches can combat this stigma by encouraging those wrestling with depression and/or anxiety to seek care that’s appropriate to their needs. Having a list of qualified counselors, psychiatrists and other experts can be helpful, but only if those who need care are aware of this resource. The LifeWay/Focus on the Family survey revealed that while over two thirds of pastors say their churches maintain a list of mental health professionals, only 28 percent of families of those living with mental illnesses know that their churches have such a list.
Demonstrate Christ’s love.
As Christ’s body, the Church is responsible to demonstrate His love to those who are hurting. Believers can seek out the struggling and make intentional efforts to listen and offer encouragement. They can provide help in practical ways such as sharing a meal or giving a ride. And, they can pray with and for those who are suffering, asking God to infuse hope into their lives, give them grace for each day and lead them to treatment and care options that can help them manage their mental health challenges.
The Well Community is a place where the truth about mental illness is known and proclaimed, where members find encouragement and support in pursuing recovery and where Christ’s love is demonstrated in word and in deed. Your gift will help those living with serious mental health challenges continue to find a place to belong at The Well.